“I know it’s a hideous story but it’s a true story of our time and the world we live in”- Catherine Holly
Suddenly, Last Summer was a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. It opened off Broadway on January 7, 1958. It was part of a double bill with another one-act play of Williams’ called Something Unspoken. Suddenly, Last Summer is considered one of Williams’ starkest and most poetic works, and I tend to agree.
While writing this post, I discovered the same story surfacing about the working atmosphere on the set of the film, concerning the tensions between film stars Katharine Hepburn as well as Liz Taylor toward Mankiewicz’s abominable treatment of actor Monty Clift who had been struggling on the set with alcohol and drug use due to a car accident that disfigured his face. The actors had grown increasingly disgusted with the director’s blatant homophobic abuse of Clift who was openly gay.
Apparently this tension culminated into a moment of rebellion by Ms. Hepburn, who waited til the final scene was shot, and then proceeded to spit in Mankiewicz’s face. I have to say, that while Hepburn is not on my list of actors that I idolize nor whose film career I follow closely, I commend her intrepid defense, and would have expected more of a face slap with a long white linen glove. I am saddened by the revelation, if it is accurate that Mankiewicz was a homophobe. I just finished watching his film, Letter to Three Wives 1949 with 3 of my best loved actresses Ann Southern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. Not to mention his contribution to All About Eve 1950. It’s often hard to separate the person from the work, and while I will always admire his work as a director, it does taint the waters to think that Mankiewicz could be a neanderthal in his thinking.
Producer Sam Spiegel submitted Gore Vidal’s screenplay to the MPAA’s review board before production began, the board having expressed objections to the stories subject matter. Spiegel wanted to let Joseph Mankiewicz shoot the film as it was intended. Although the board first refused to approve the film, they gave the go ahead, after a few minor changes were made. Thus, the word homosexual never materialized at any time in the film.
The movie supposedly differs from the stage version, using added scenes, and characters. Also adding a few subplots. Due to the strict Hollywood Production Codes that were enforced, they had to cut out any explicit references to homosexuality.
Elizabeth Taylor conjures the psychically injured Catherine Holly with a volatile poignancy , Katharine Hepburn icy and filled with misconstructions about the relationship with her son Sebastian, emerges from her gilded elevator like a throne, as Mrs.Violet Venable. Both stars were up for Academy Awards for Best Actress in A Leading Role that year, but both lost to Simone Signoret for her role in Room at The Top (1959).
Montgomery Clift is the kindly and ruminating Dr. Cukrowicz Albert Dekker is head of Lion’s View Sanitarium Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader, who is in desperate need of an endowment to overhaul his crumbling hospital.
Mercedes McCambridge plays Mrs Grace Holly, Violet’s opportunistic mother, and Gary Raymond plays Violet’s self absorbed brother George Holly. Mavis Villiers is Mrs Foxhill, Violet Venable’s dutiful assistant.
With a dynamic soundtrack by Buxton Orr, (usually working on Sci-Fi films like Fiend Without A Face 1958,First Man Into Space 1959) and Malcolm Arnold. Film editing by William Hornbeck and Thomas Stanford. And cinematography by Jack Hildyard.
Brooks Atkinson of the NY times writes “Mr Williams is at his peak as the poet of the damned” and “his most decisive denial of the values by which most people live, his most devastating statement about corruption in the world.”
In Donald Spoto’s biography – The Kindness of Strangers-The Life of Tennessee Williams, Williams underwent intense psychotherapy in mid 1957 frequently visiting his sister Rose who was institutionalized , eventually completing the play against the advice of Dr Kubie. ” I think if this analysis works” he said as the year drew to a close, “It will open some doors for me. If I am no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with disturbed people and with violent material…It would be good If I could write with serenity” -Tennessee Williams
The intense therapy that Williams underwent with Dr. Kubie, actually triggered an even more violent self purgative exposition of his life’s journey, staying true to himself as a writer who would contribute something more visceral to the American stage. Spoto goes on to say “Williams had hoped at the beginning of his therapy to conform to the prevailing theatrical and cultural coziness of 1958 but the play was neither safe nor easy nor would it be for his audience.”
Suddenly, Last Summer essentially acts as confessional, partly out of the guilt he felt about his sister Rose’s treatment, and self reflection of the demons that were made manifest due to his intensive psychoanalysis.
Throughout Suddenly, Last Summer, there are threads of autobiographical allusions to his private life.Williams struggled with the sadness over his own sister Rose who was forced to undergo a lobotomy at the urging of their own domineering mother, not unlike Violet. During the time Williams started writing Suddenly, Last Summer, he began his psychoanalysis before finishing the play.
One of the narrative’s main arteries is the looming threat of lobotomy to Catherine Holly mirroring William’s sister Rose’s imposed surgery. Sebastian Venable’s pattern of exploitation was something that he wrestled with about his own behavior. “Yes” says Catherine, “We all use each other and that’s what we think of as love.”
“and for Sebastian/Williams sexual exploitation had masqueraded as love, and had become a kind of human devouring. The final horror of “Desire and the Black Masseur” was at last narrated in the extreme: “We were going to blonds…that’s how he talked about people, as if they were items on the menu. ‘That one’s delicious- looking, that one is appetizing.’ or ‘that one is not appetizing’ – I think because he was really nearly half starved from living on pills and salads.”- Donald Spoto
Apparently the connection between Williams and Sebastian was even made evident using the reference to “popping little white pills” And although Violet claims that Sebastian like the author , “dreaded, abhorred false values that come from being publicly known from fame, from personal exploitation,” she admitted “Time after time my son would let people go, dismiss them.”
As it often reveals itself with many of Tennessee Williams plays, the story uses elements from his own personal life acting as semi-confessional. Sebastian’s persona is one of a counterfeit poet, parasite and exploiter of people, such as his delicate cousin Catherine, ultimately being devoured by street urchins in Spain, literally and metaphorically consumed by the object of his own desire, setting the tone for Williams reflexive portrait of self condemnation and remorse. Suddenly, Last Summer as Donald Spoto once again states, “the perception of derailed creative energies and the abuse of love as any moralist could ever proclaim.” “Obsessed with what the play calls ‘the trails of debris’ that he believed had characterized so much of his life in the 1940s and 50s.”
Joseph L Mankiewicz had said, “There is something not only of confession in the play, but of wish-fulfillment too. Tennessee might have liked to have a garden with statues like Sebastian’s, a study with paintings like Sebastians’. If he had a distaste for anything, it was for his own aging, and his own humble background and circumstances. Suddenly Last Summer enabled him to have what he despised, in a way. And Mrs Venable is certainly a composite of the women who defended and accompanied him all over the world.”
It’s 1937 Montgomery Clift plays the sympathetic Dr. John Cukrowicz an upcoming neurosurgeon from Chicago, who has been summoned to the palatial Venable estate an old Victorian Mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans, by the sovereign widow, and wealthy matriarch Violet Venable inhabited imposingly by Katharine Hepburn who portrays Violet’s character like a Dragon Lady in a starched white exoskeleton. Violet is prepared to donate a large sum of money to fund the doctor’s research at the state mental hospital Lion’s View Asylum, with the stipulation that he perform a lobotomy on her supposedly insane niece and poor relation, Catherine Holly portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her most volatile roles.
Suddenly, Last Summer, harnesses integral visions and symbols of a predatory natural world. Overgrown plant life that seems to inhabit the ancient spirits of the forest, statues resembling an Angel of Death, and somewhat like that of a winged maternal bird of prey, a flesh eating bird as mentioned in the story Violet relates to Dr. Cukrowicz. We see Violet in several frames set against the figure of the skeletal harbinger. Violet is the embodiment of The Devouring Mother, as she escorts the gentleman doctor around her dead son Sebastian’s primordial jungle evoking the garden of earthly delights by Hieronymus Bosch.
Williams intended the environment to be a Savage place, the natural world. A domain where human frailty and compulsion breed a ravaging force that consumes not only the spirit, but essentially arouses the carnal, primal need to consume the weaker of the species not only to prevail as the unbounded agency of dominance, but to satiate oneself infinitely.